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Book Review: ‘The Puzzled’ by James F. Johnson

In The Puzzled, James F. Johnson brings all the pieces together from his first two books to reveal some shocking secrets about Kyle Rickett’s past. This third and final book in the Bullies and Allies series follows Disaster Island and The Goat Driver.

In Disaster Island, readers were introduced to thirteen-year-old Kyle’s dysfunctional family, as well as the pediatrician, Dr. Krieg, whom Kyle has vague memories of having molested him as a child. Unfortunately, Dr. Krieg is Kyle’s father’s only friend, and now that Kyle is older, that doesn’t deter Krieg’s behavior. Kyle is surrounded by bullies at school and at home, while simply trying to survive.

When things reach a crisis point, his family, not knowing how to deal with him, sends him for the summer to his Grandpa Louie in Minnesota. In The Goat Driver, Kyle arrives in Minnesota. During the summer, he makes a new friend, a young man named Tuck, who teaches him the true meaning of friendship and how to stick up for himself when he returns home.

When The Puzzled opens, Kyle has just returned home to Torano Island in Washington. He is more self-confident than before, and with Tuck’s secret support, Kyle is able to face several, but not all, of his bullies. His sociopathic sister Fran still continues to stir up trouble in the family, driving a wedge between Kyle and his parents. Kyle is continually afraid of what she will say; she is always willing to expose family secrets as well as tell lies or just guess until she hits upon the truths of situations.

Outside his immediate family, Kyle has other issues to deal with. He remains an outcast at school, although he learns how to cope with the situation better. When Dr. Krieg is accused by an anonymous caller of molesting children and leaves his practice, Kyle is deadly afraid that whoever knows about Krieg’s activities also knows he was one of Krieg’s victims. He fears when that knowledge is exposed to the public, it will ruin his life.
The Puzzled by James F. Johnson
Fortunately, Kyle has found his allies. He maintains a secret correspondence with Tuck, who, despite being far away in California, continually supports him and even lets him know that if it ever becomes necessary, he will come to Torano Island to rescue him. Closer to home is Kyle’s neighbor and best friend, Connor.

Kyle has kept secrets from Connor all these years, afraid if Connor knew how he was treated in Catholic school, he wouldn’t be his friend either. But when Connor and Kyle begin high school together, they are able to bond even more and Kyle is able to leave the bullies from his Catholic school past behind him. Eventually, Connor and Kyle begin their own radio show, which becomes a hit on Torano Island. Soon, Kyle finds that he is popular and well-liked. The radio show and his friendship with Connor allow him to see possibilities for his future.

But the future still requires coping with the past. Although as yet undiagnosed, Kyle is suffering from PTSD from his abusive childhood, which causes him at times to revert to dangerous behavior—both suicidal and sexual. He soon realizes that his biggest enemy may be himself.

The Puzzled comes to a very satisfying conclusion. James F. Johnson does an excellent job of bringing together all the issues Kyle has faced in the past and showing how he works through them. This book—and, indeed, the entire series—is more than just an entertaining novel. It will raise awareness of family dysfunction, PTSD, sociopaths, child abuse, and many other issues that cause people to find life difficult to deal with.

The Puzzled, in particular, is largely about healing from the past. Johnson offers a very concise look at bullying, and while he agrees it is important to stand up to bullies, he also shows there are some situations in which you simply can’t stand up to bullies so the best thing to do is to walk away. This lesson is the hardest one in the book for Kyle to accept because it means ending some relationships he would have liked to maintain, but the only way to ensure his sanity and safety is to cut the ties that should otherwise bind.

I remain impressed with Johnson’s ability to develop his characters so completely. These characters feel like real people, like people I have known, cried with, and cheered for as they have experienced life’s ups and downs. If I have any complaint, it’s that the story is now over.

Even though The Puzzled is much longer than the two previous books, I am left wondering about many things, not because Johnson doesn’t resolve everything, but because I want more. I want to know what Jayne, Kyle’s niece, grows up to be like after being raised by a sociopathic mom. I want to know more about Kyle’s cousin Scooter, who fakes his death after his family condemns him for being gay. I just don’t want to leave these people. I guess I’m hoping for some sort of a spin-off series someday.

Overall, I can’t recommend the Bullies and Allies series enough. Anyone who has experienced a dysfunctional past—and at least to some degree, we all have—will find much in these pages to relate to, and more importantly, learn from.

For more information about The Puzzled, the Bullies and Allies series, and author James F. Johnson, visit the author’s website.

About Tyler Tichelaar

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